ROME -- It was hailed as a giant step forward for racial integration in a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant classes. But Cecile Kyenge's appointment as Italy's first black Cabinet minister has instead exposed the nation's ugly race problem, a blight that flares regularly on the soccer field with racist taunts and in the diatribes of xenophobic politicians -- but has now raised its head at the center of political life.
One politician from a party that not long ago ruled in a coalition government derided what he called Italy's new "bonga bonga government." On Wednesday, amid increasing revulsion over the reaction, the government authorized an investigation into neo-fascist websites whose members called Dr. Kyenge "Congolese monkey" and other epithets.
Dr. Kyenge, 48, was born in Congo and moved to Italy three decades ago to study medicine. An eye surgeon, she lives in Modena with her Italian husband and two children. She was active in local center-left politics before winning a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in February elections.
Premier Enrico Letta tapped Dr. Kyenge to be minister of integration in his hybrid center-left and center-right government that won its second vote of confidence Tuesday. In his introductory speech to Parliament, Mr. Letta touted Dr. Kyenge's appointment as a "new concept about the confines of barriers giving way to hope, of unsurpassable limits giving way to a bridge between diverse communities."
His praise and that of others has been almost drowned out by the racist slurs directed at Dr. Kyenge by politicians of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, an on-again, off-again ally of long-serving ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, and members of neo-fascist Internet groups.
In addition to his ''bonga bonga" slur, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian for the League, warned in an interview with Radio 24 that Dr. Kyenge would try to "impose tribal traditions" from her native Congo on Italy.
Dr. Kyenge on Tuesday responded to the insults, thanking those who had come to her defense and taking a veiled jab at her critics' vulgarity. "I believe even criticism can inform if it's done with respect," she tweeted.
Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon. France has several high-ranking government ministers with immigrant roots, and few French had a problem with the appointments.
Italy is another story. Once a country of emigration to North and South America at the turn of the last century, Italy saw the first waves of Eastern European and African migrants coming to its shores only in the 1980s. In the last decade or two, their numbers have increased exponentially, and with them, anti-immigrant sentiment.
Surveys show Italians blame immigrants for crime and overtaxing an already-burdened public health system. Foreigners were about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; now, they are 7.5 percent, according to the official statistics bureau Istat.
Some of the most blatant racism manifestations occur in the realm of Italy's favorite sport, soccer. For a handful of Italian teams, soccer is a way for right-wing fan clubs to vent.
Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan striker born in Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by an Italian adoptive family, knows all about it. Perhaps Italy's best player today, he has long been a target of racist taunts. During one match, rival fans hung a banner that read "Black Italians don't exist," while his own club's vice president once called him the household's "little black boy."
Mr. Balotelli called Dr. Kyenge's nomination "another great step forward for an Italian society that is more civil, responsible and understanding of the need for better, definitive integration."
Dr. Kyenge got off to a rocky start with the Northern League when, on the day she was named minister, she said one of her top priorities would be to make it easier for children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain Italian citizenship. Such children now can apply only when they turn 18.
The issue has vexed Italy for years and previous center-left governments have failed to change the law, even though most Italians -- 72 percent according to a 2012 study -- favor it. It's not just a matter of a passport, but has real impact on an immigrant family's ability to integrate into society.